(Quick note: this post deals with body image, weight, food, exercise, and insecurity. If those topics are triggering or troublesome for you, I encourage you to skip this post. Take care of yourself!)
I’ve been struggling with body stuff a lot lately, and it’s not fun. Counting my calories alternately seems to keep me sane or make me want to tear all my hair out. Looking at my naked body in the mirror feels unbearable some days and totally neutral on other days. My feelings toward food oscillate from toxic resentment to pure sensual love. It’s… confusing.
When I have feelings that trouble me, on any subject, I always do my best to get to the root of them – to figure out where they’re coming from and what can be done about them. Like most people (especially most women), my relationship to food and exercise is about so much more than just food and exercise: it’s about gender, and self-worth, and past emotional traumas, and bone-deep insecurities. So there’s a lot of excavating to do if I want to work it all out. But I think I came up with an important insight recently, and I’d like to share it with you.
Women are socialized to understand our beauty as our most important feature. More important than our intelligence, humor, interests, professional pursuits, or even our sexual talents, our beauty is supposed to be our ongoing project and most crucial prize. Our total value as human beings is ascribed to our appearance, and that does a lot of damage.
I have internalized the idea that not only am I required to be beautiful (meaning: conventionally pretty and thin), but I am required to be beautiful all the time. Just look at the beginning of practically any fictional hetero romance: whether it takes place in a cheesy rom-com, a staid period drama, or a twisted YA novel, the “meet-cute” typically hinges on the woman looking pretty and the man noticing.
I’m an avid consumer of romantic storylines, so it’s no surprise that this trope got so deep into my head, I guess. But it sucks, because now I go through life with the sinking feeling that any moment spent looking less than beautiful is a moment wasted, an opportunity squandered. As much as my higher intellectual self tries to squash this irrational feeling, some part of me is still constantly wondering if the lover of my dreams is somewhere in my vicinity, and if, were they to see me right now, they’d be interested or just walk right by me.
It instills a scary desperation, a constant uncertainty. The last thing I ate becomes a statement on my entire morality. The time elapsed since my last workout defines what kind of love I deserve. My ability to attract the attention of some handsome suitor becomes the single most important measurement of my value as a human being.
Of course, I know this isn’t really true. I know there is more to me than my face and my body. I even know that I’m capable of love no matter what size I am, because I’ve dated at my fattest and at my thinnest and no one has ever run screaming out of the room at the sight of my naked body. Far from it: I’ve had my curves praised, lusted after, worshiped.
But I’m single now, and shy, and anxious, so the worries creep in. And the result has become all too clear in recent months: food has lost its joy for me, because it mostly makes me feel guilty; I exercise out of obligation instead of genuine desire; and my guard is always up when I’m out. What do these people think of me? Do I look good enough to be in public right now? Am I performing “beautiful femininity” well enough?
Well, fuck that shit. I am valuable whether or not I’m “fuckable” and so are you. No matter how much your silly brain might try to trip you up, the fact is that different people are attracted to different things and so if your hygiene is acceptable and you’re a basically pleasant person to be around, someone out there will be into you. Promise.
But, beyond that, it also has to be said that being loved romantically is not the most important thing in the universe. Sometimes I get so caught up in desperate romantic wishes that I forget about the love I already have in my life: family, friends, passions, excitements, even my love for myself (which does exist, somewhere under all the layers of self-criticism).
Sometimes I watch the way men interact, and the kinds of things they talk about, and I realize that men are valued – and value themselves – for who they are and what they do, not what kind of mate they can or cannot attract. I need to reject the patriarchal paradigm which says I am only as valuable as the number of dudes who want to get in my pants. I do so much cool shit and I am so smart, funny, kind, clever and delightful. That should be enough. That is enough.
It’s still a daily struggle to figure out how to live comfortably in my body without upsetting my mind (or vice versa), but these revelations have been helpful to me. I breathe a little easier knowing my fears are unfounded and silly.
Have you battled similar thoughts and concerns around body image or romantic/sexual desirability? How did/do you deal?